The One Time A Plane Leaves Earlier Than Scheduled, I’m Running Late

Milton’s JetBlue flight took off early, leaving him behind. Since when do commercial airliners ever run early? The problem is that when he checked in, that particular flight was running late. The departure time printed on his boarding pass was 5:00. He barely made it to the airport twenty minutes before departure, only to see that the plane had already left. When he printed out that last-minute boarding pass, the flight had been running late. It caught up to its own schedule by the time it reached New York, and left on time. Which was before the departure time listed on Milton’s boarding pass, and after he got to the airport.

He tried to reason with JetBlue that the situation wasn’t fair to him. No help there. He tried to file a chargeback with his credit card company for the flight he didn’t receive. Capital One initially granted him a refund, then took it back after hearing JetBlue’s side.

I am a long-time reader of the blog and I used to work on consumer debt and credit issues as an Americorps Vista volunteer. I recently had an ordeal trying to fly on JetBlue from NYC to Chicago to see my family over the 4th of July, which I thought would be of interest by itself — but even more interesting is the way my credit card’s merchant dispute process completely failed me, despite my doing everything they asked me to and their employees agreeing with me that I was entitled to a refund. Here is the story:

I booked my ticket well in advance and got a pretty good fare of $158 roundtrip from NYC – Chicago. On the day of my flight, I went to JetBlue’s website to check in early several hours before my flight and print my boarding pass while I was at work. JetBlue gave me a message saying that my flight was delayed and the new departure time would be 5:00pm, about an hour later than originally scheduled. I checked in online and printed my boarding pass, which had the time 5:00pm printed on it, and continued working for another hour. (I work in midtown Manhattan and I have taken many flights out of JFK, so I have a pretty good idea how long it takes to get to the airport from my office.)

When I got to the airport, I went through security, which took a few minutes but the lines were not especially long. I walked through the terminal to my gate, and arrived at the desk no later than 4:45pm (probably more like 4:40pm). But I noticed the display behind the desk already had the name of another city and flight, and when I asked the JetBlue employee why, he said that the 5:00pm flight had departed early and that they were allowed to do that because it had been delayed originally. I showed him my boarding pass, which clearly said 5:00pm and also said nothing about the possibility of early departure, and he just shrugged and suggested I try to fly standby on a later flight. I ended up trying twice, waiting around the airport for about 7 more hours, and because there was no room on the flights, having to ride the Airtrain back home at midnight, and book and pay a hugely inflated fare the next day.

I contacted JetBlue and explained what had happened, and they insisted that because the original departure time of the flight had been earlier than the 5:00pm time I was given on the day of the flight (and which was printed on my boarding pass), any arrival after that original departure time was considered a “no-show” and I was not eligible for a refund. I explained that I showed up with plenty of time to board the 5:00pm flight, since normally they don’t close the doors until 15 minutes before departure, and that it was JetBlue who had decided to leave early and strand me at the airport. The customer service rep just kept repeating that I was a no-show and could not have a refund. When I suggested that even if I can’t get a refund, could I have a confirmed seat on a flight the next day since I had already wasted an entire day waiting around the airport to fly standby, the rep said that I would have to pay JetBlue’s change fee of $150.

I called my credit card, Capital One, to explain what had happened and submitted a merchant dispute. They issued a credit for the $158, and then requested documentation. I sent them a copy of the boarding pass with the departure time of 5:00pm, and explained that I had arrived at the gate no later than 15 minutes before the flight, and that a JetBlue rep at the desk had admitted to me that the flight “left early.”

They took several weeks to process all of this and sent me a merchant response which stated (incorrectly) that I had showed up late for the flight. I again wrote a letter insisting that I had not been late, and that the merchant’s account was factually inaccurate. Capital One took away the credit for the cost of the flight, and then called me to say that because I had not arrived at security 20 minutes before departure, I was considered late. I again insisted that I HAD shown up at security 20 minutes before the flight, because it had taken at least 5 minutes to go through the line and walk to the gate, where I was ready to board by 4:45. They agreed that I should be entitled to the credit, but stated that because the merchant had declined it, they “no longer have dispute rights” (whatever that is supposed to mean). When I pressed them on why a merchant dispute mechanism even exists if they are only going to believe the merchant’s baseless account of the facts instead of mine, they said that I would have to prove to them that the flight left early.

Finally, I received a letter from Capital One (again inaccurately) stating that:

“Since you arrived at the airport later than the required time and the ticket was non refundable we no longer have dispute rights. We did attempt to receive a credit for the second time but unfortunately it was denied. Since the above merchant provided the service they were hired for, they are, in fact, due payment for the services that were rendered.”

But I DID NOT arrive later than the required time, and taking off before the stated departure time on my boarding pass IS NOT the service JetBlue was hired for. So I am left wondering, what is the point of this whole stupid merchant dispute process offered by credit cards like Capital One if they refuse to listen to what actually happened from a person (their customer) who was actually there, and instead just parrot the merchant’s inaccurate description, and if the ultimate decision whether to provide a credit lies with the merchant and not the credit card? I have already wasted more time waiting around for a standby flight, writing to my credit card, and explaining over and over to them what happened that the credit for the fare isn’t worth it. But it offers a good lesson in how toothless and unresponsive the credit cards are in pursuing merchant disputes, something I hadn’t realized until I actually needed to use this feature.

The problem is that it’s Milton’s word against that of JetBlue, and JetBlue’s side makes more sense. From their point of view, a passenger should know the original scheduled departure time of his flight. (What about someone buying a last-minute ticket?)